Today is not turning out to be a day to be happy. At best it’s turning out to be a day to think, and it’s not proving to be the sort of thinking that leads to outcomes I like.
Well I’ve got a simple ambition – simple to define that is, certainly not simple to achieve. I want to be a mainstream, published writer, with an agent, a publisher, and books in bookshops around the world. I don’t want writing to be my hobby. I’d like it to be my job.
I received two emails today, both very nice, both very polite, and both trying to be as constructive and helpful as possible.
The first was from a fan of Critical Miss urging me to forgot about mainstream publishing and instead self-publish.
The second was an agent who, in a very thoughtful, constructive and helpful email… turned me down. Mainly this was due to my writing not setting him on fire. That’s fine. Writing is, as he himself said, very subjective, and I think humour is doubly so. But he also said something else, that I’ve previously heard from other people, which (paraphrasing his words) is this:
As far as the mainstream book world is concerned there isn’t really such a thing as a market for, or genre of, humorous SF/Fantasy. There’s just a Terry Pratchett market, and that’s that.
I can believe this to be true, which is what makes it so doubly depressing. But it seems perverse. Terry Pratchett became the best selling UK author of the 1990s by writing humorous fantasy, and the conclusion that was drawn from this was that there is no market for humorous fantasy? That’s he so cornered the market that there’s no room for anyone else?
Trying to break into the fiction market is hard enough as it is. It’s not enough to be good, I know that. You have to be great, and even then you have to find people whose tastes are aligned precisely enough with yours that you’re their kind of great.
But if you’re writing for a genre that doesn’t exist, then what’s the point? You may as well give up and go home. Or in my case, leave home and go to work (a.k.a. the day job).
Three years back, I wrote a book, Game Night, which people loved. It wasn’t technically self-published, but it was self-marketed. It wasn’t in any bookshops save a handful of Waterstone’s, where it appeared due to the efforts of individual staff who were fans. It was about a subject perceived to be even more niche than humorous fantasy. You think humorous fantasy’s niche? This was humorous roleplaying game fantasy! There was no marketing budget. There were no PR people. Hell, there were no editors.
There was just me.
And yet it’s sold nearly two thousand copies, which I’m told is pretty good for books.
At 2008’s Eastercon I had two middle-aged, female, Terry Pratchett fans who’d never played a roleplaying game in their life buy the book. They loved it. One came back the next day to say: “I was awake half the night, and it’s all your fault, because I couldn’t put it down, because it’s brilliant!”
A few months later we went to the 2008 Discworld Convention, which is, as the name suggests, basically a Terry Pratchett fan convention. We sold 76 copies, which amounts to a little over one in ten of the people attending. I’ve since met many of those people again, and they’ve all told me how much they love the book.
I’ve got a page on my website listing literally dozens of seriously nice quotes about Game Night, many of whom compare it favourably to Terry Pratchett’s works.
Barely a month goes by without someone asking me when me next book will be out. Nagging even. (I mean that literally. For the record, the most recent time was at a party in Wincanton on Saturday 5th March, whose attendees included several Terry Pratchett fans. I’m not making this shit up.)
And each time I have to tell them sorry, don’t know, but it’s a long time away at best.
Which is what I find so frustrating. On one side I have a bunch of people who like what I’ve written thus far, and who not only want more but are getting annoyed at my failure to produce something. And on the other side I have a book industry that says there’s no market for what I write.
I should stress again that I have no bad feelings whatsoever towards the agent who said this. I respect him, and value the kindness that led him to send me a personal written rejection rather than a standard form reply. If I thought his words were falsehoods backed by poor judgement they would be easy to dismiss. It’s that I believe his words to be truths backed by hard-earned knowledge that’s made me so depressed.
It’s probably a little unprofessional to confess to being depressed on my blog (strictly speaking I’m pissed off and miserable rather than actually, clinically depressed) but I figure what’s a blog for if it’s not to be occasionally honest?
I’m not about to give up. There’s still more agents out there, and I’ll keep plugging away, although it worries me that if publishers really do all believe that there’s no market for humorous SF/fantasy, then any agent who might take me on is apparently, by definition, a fool who doesn’t understand the market.
And if we get to this time next year with no progress made, then maybe I will look down the self-publishing route. But if I do, it will be with a heavy heart. I don’t want to be a salesman or a publicist or an editor. I just want to write. I’d like the prestige of being a “published” author, rather than the dubious honour of being part of a process that I once heard a big-name SF author describe as “evil”. I’d like to believe that I might one day be a guest at an SF convention, rather than just the bloke with a stall in the dealers room trying to sell his self-published “crap”.
And I fear that the day I go self-published is the day I give up on the dream of ever making a living at this. I’ve tried selling a book and it isn’t anything like as easy as people think. But maybe that’s an impossible dream anyway. Very few authors make a living writing, and in the “information wants to be free” Internet era I suspect that number will be even further reduced.
It’s not about the money. I’ll never earn as much as a writer as I currently earn as a programmer in the City. And it’s not just about wanting to do a job I enjoy – although that’s a big part of it. It’s about wanting to have time to write all the stories in my head. I bought myself a notebook recently and on the first page, wrote a list of all the novels I already have ideas for.
There’s eleven of them, eight of which are in a genre that apparently doesn’t exist. I’d like to arrange my life such that I might actually get to write them one day.